The Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas, doesn't have a lot in common with its larger-than-life namesake. That doesn't mean that the small-town zoo isn't impressive in its own right. It would be difficult for any park to live up to the legend of Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck.
Sixty years ago, Frank Buck (1884-1950) was as well-known a celebrity as Johnny Weissmuller in his day or as Steve Irwin is now. Born in Gainesville, Buck was a lifelong Texan, although he lived much of his life outside of the state.
Buck's long career as an animal collector, author, radio star, and filmmaker began in 1902 when he was hired on to help handle a trainload of cattle from Dallas to Chicago. Using winnings from a card game, he headed for South America, where he trapped animals to sell to American zoos.
For nearly 50 years, Buck hunted primarily in the South Asian markets and jungles of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Borneo for specimens that would fill the cages of animal parks from the Bronx to San Diego. In 1922, he stocked the Dallas Zoo, the oldest zoo in Texas, with a world-class collection of animals.
His autobiography, Bring 'Em Back Alive, made him an international celebrity in 1930. For a number of years, the book was on the required reading list in Texas public schools. RKO Studios turned it into a blockbuster movie.
Buck followed his debut bestseller with seven more books and six movies, including an appearance in the Abbott and Costello film Africa Screams. All of his creative offerings are out of print now, but Steven Lehrer released a compilation of Buck's short stories in Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck through the Texas Tech University Press.
The stories in Buck's books are still as readable today as they were when originally published. In a time before television, Buck brought an image of the South Asian jungles to the printed page with humor and drama. He claimed that he never willfully or unnecessarily harmed an animal in the pursuit of his livelihood. Frank Buck died in Houston of lung cancer at the age of 66.
It is unfair to judge Buck's profession 60 years ago by today's standards. He lived in an era when big-game hunters thought there was an endless supply of wall trophies. Collecting live specimens for well-managed zoological parks had scientific and education value then and now.
Buck never directly contributed to the zoo in his hometown, although he did serve as an honorary ringmaster to the Gainesville Community Circus, the zoo's predecessor. The circus began in 1930 as a fundraiser for the community theatre. The all-volunteer performance turned out to be so popular that the citizens took it on the road for a 24-year run. At its peak, the amateur show grew into a three-ring circus with seven tents.
During the off-season, the animals were housed in a makeshift zoo on the edge of downtown. After the circus' equipment was destroyed in a fire in 1954, the animals retired to become the foundation of the city zoo. Despite two floods, the Gainesville zoo has been upgraded over the years into a nice facility that gives visitors upclose looks at animals from four continents.
The path around the zoo is about a mile long and is wheelchair- and stroller- accessible. An elevated walkway takes visitors over the kangaroos, giraffes, and zebras. In the petting zoo, the animals are accessible through portholes that allow children and the animals to escape unwanted attention easily. Many of the Texas-native residents were found injured and could not be reintroduced into the wild.
The Frank Buck Zoo is at 1000 W. California St. in Gainesville's Leonard Park. The gift shop has a small exhibit of Frank Buck's personal items donated by his daughter. The public gets to help feed the giraffes at 10:30am. On Saturday and Sunday, the zookeepers give informal presentations around the zoo. The front gates open 9am to 4pm daily. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children. For more information, call 940/668-4539 or go to www.frankbuckzoo.com.
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